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Kubla Khan
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Complete exegesis which reveals the actual meaning of this, the most misunderstood poem in all literature. Its beauty and truth shines forth when read and understood from the viewpoint of the Model developed in this book.

The following criticisms are taken from the late, and dearly missed, John Spencer Hill, A Coleridge Companion

Thomas Moore, writing in the Edinburgh Review (Sep 1816), tartly asserted that "the thing now before us, is utterly destitute of value" and he defied "any man to point out a passage of poetical merit" in it...  

"The poem itself is below criticism", declared the anonymous reviewer in the Monthly Review (Jan 1817)  

William Hazlitt claimed that Xanadu demonstrated that "Mr. Coleridge can write better nonsense verses than any man in England"  

John Livingston Lowes:   "For Kubla Khan is as near enchantment, I suppose, as we are like to come in this dull world."  While one may track or attempt to track individual images to their sources, Kubla Khan as a whole remains utterly inexplicable -- a "dissolving phantasmagoria" of highly charged images whose streaming pageant is, in the final analysis, "as aimless as it is magnificent"

Elisabeth Schneider, too, suggests that a good part of the poem's charm and power derives from the fact that it is invested with "an air of meaning rather than meaning itself".  

The first and, for over a hundred years, almost the only reader to insist on the intelligibility and coherence of Kubla Khan was Shelley's novel-writing friend, Thomas Love Peacock:  "there are", he declared in 1818, "very few specimens of lyrical poetry so plain, so consistent, so completely simplex et unum from first to last".  Perhaps wisely, Peacock concluded his fragmentary essay with these words, thereby sparing himself the onerous task of explaining the consistency and meaning of so plain a poem as Kubla Khan.  

More recent commentators, however, have been much bolder.  In the criticism of the last fifty years one may distinguish, broadly, four major approaches to Kubla Khan:  (1) interpretations of it as a poem about the poetic process; (2) readings of it as an exemplification of aspects of Coleridgean aesthetic theory; (3) Freudian analyses; and (4) Jungian interpretations.   While recent critics concur in finding a symbolic substructure in Kubla Khan, there is little agreement among them as to how that symbolism should be interpreted.


I totally agree with Peacock.  To me, the meaning of the heart of the poem is obvious.  This poem is a love song to Sophia, the Mother Goddess, Isis, the very Earth we live in (not on!), who is alive to her most hidden recesses.  Any theosopher would also quickly see to the heart of the metaphor.  Not only is the poem beautiful, it is also reverent and erotic, and illustrative of the light and dark sides of gnosis.   

First, I would like you to take careful note that the historical Kublai Khan was impressed by the Tibetan monks, and made Phagspa, lama of a Buddhist order, a member of his entourage. Phagspa bestowed on Kublai and his wife a Tantric Buddhist initiation!

For convenience in this exegesis, I have separated the poem into parts, and will treat each part in turn:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

≡     An ordinary man ordered the pleasure-dome, as if Nature, the divinely produced pleasure-dome, were not enough.  Alph (as in Alpha & Omega) is the source of life, but the sunless sea is where Kubla built.

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

≡     He built his paradise, but walled it off, as earls of the land have always done.  This was Kubla's attempt to create a home-made paradise.  But he made nothing, all the goodness was already there.  He just selfishly sealed it off as if to exclude the rabble.

But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover !

≡     This is nothing less than the sexual heart of Sophia, the Mother Goddess.  The metaphor of the Vulva as savage, and holy, and enchanted.  Shows extreme desire. Their last union was under the full moon, which is now waning, and she is wailing for her sorely missed lover to return. Demon does not mean Satanic, only non-corporeal.  Coleridge needed four exclamation points for this part!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momently was forced :
Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
It flung up momently the sacred river.

≡     This is a blow-by-blow metaphor of a mighty Holy Orgasm, the result of which is the sacred river of life.  This is a myth of creation.  At once and ever means this did not happen long ago in the dim past, but is a continuous happening then, now, and forever.  Momently means from moment to moment, that is, continuously.  Coleridge probably needed to smoke a cigarette, or more likely opium, after this part.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :

≡     Meandering (seemingly aimless) with a mazy motion. The maze seems aimless, but it is completely goal-oriented, and leads to the prize at the center if you know how to follow it correctly.  The ocean is lifeless, as all life is bestowed by the sacred river.  Compare this with "darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters"

And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war !
The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves ;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !

≡     The evil to come (war) is from man, bringing his ignorance to the paradise of Sophia, the Mother Goddess.  Here is a man-made attempted imitation of paradise.  On the surface, a sunny pleasure-dome, but at its core, lifeless and cold as ice.

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw :
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.

≡     Coleridge had a vision, a common peak experience among mystics. The damsel is from Abyssinia, in its time the oldest state in the world, where the earliest ancestors to the human species were discovered. It is also evocative of the Goddess singing from the abyss.  Originally, the line read Mount Amora, thus singing of love, but perhaps Coleridge thought that would be too heavy-handed, and kept his subtlety slightly more hidden.

Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !

≡     It was so beautiful, that Coleridge desired to build his own paradise; not actually on earth, but in his dreams.  However, he can't quite evoke the memory of his former opium-induced vision. More likely, it is virtually impossible to recall, much less describe, visions perceived in the second attention, peak experiences, or mystic epiphanies.

And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

≡     "Them" refers to the God the Mother, the personification of Earth, and God the Father, the Creator and Her lover.  Coleridge is in holy awe at this vision of the Creation.  This is so evocative of Masonic and similar rituals of ancient and modern Mystery Schools, where a blindfolded initiate is led thrice around the Holy altar. The flashing eyes and floating hair is also evocative of angelic and other non-corporeal entities who live in Paradise.

It is interesting to note how Shakespeare described a similar metaphor in Venus and Adonis, where she is "red and hot as coals of glowing fire", "trembling in her passion", with the reluctant Adonis in her arms:

     'Fondling,' she saith, 'since I have hemm'd thee here
Within the circuit of this ivory pale,
I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale;  
Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,  
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
     'Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and from rain  
Then be my deer, since I am such a park;  
No dog shall rouse thee, though a thousand bark.'

The "pleasant fountains", "sweet bottom-grass", "high delightful plain", and "round rising hillocks" are easily and erotically read.  How more obvious could Coleridge's "deep, romantic chasm with ceaseless turmoil seething" be?